“Alpha,” a spectacular prehistoric eye-candy survival yarn, is enthralling in a square and slightly stolid way. It’s the tale of a young hunter stranded in the wilderness, who proves his manhood and becomes best friends with a wolf, and it’s like a Disney adventure fueled by a higher octane of visual dazzle, with a gnarly texture wrought from elements like blood, excrement, and maggots (the latter of which, at one point, become dinner). The director, Albert Hughes, made his name along with his brother Allen co-directing such landmark films as “Menace II Society” (1993) and the supremely underrated Jack the Ripper thriller “From Hell” (2001), and on his own he proves to be a seductive if highly traditional craftsman who knows how to sculpt a drama of the primal human spirit out of sweeping images: a herd of mastodons, a billowing volcano, a racing warthog, sun and wind and ice and plunging cliffs.
Hughes is artful enough not to hold any of these shots for too long. “Alpha,” set on the plains and mountains of Europe 20,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, is no prettified travelogue. Its most potent moments depict the gnashing war of man and nature: lions leaping from the shadows, a fellow wriggling up a dead tree to escape a pack of wolves, the astonishing opening sequence (a drop-dead marvel if you see it, as it was made to be seen, in IMAX), in which a row of hunters, dressed in fur and bones, hurl spears at a herd of bison, who rage forward and then, confronted by a fence formed by the spears, turn around and gallop the other way, plunging off a vertical cliff as dizzyingly high as any mesa you’ve ever seen. But one of the critters ends up goring a young hunter, who is tossed (in slow motion) into the air, at the edge of the cliff, making us wonder just where he’ll land.
That hunter is Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the most inexperienced member of the tribe. He’s the son of the chief, Tau (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhanneson), who with his pulled-back mane has the look and demeanor of a sternly friendly samurai. Speaking in the film’s primitive subtitled language, Tau says things like “Life is for the strong. It is earned, not given.” He’s eager to school Keda in the laws that dominate a dog-eat-dog, man-kill-and-eat-buffalo-or-get-slaughtered-by-buffalo world. But Keda is no eager student in the harsh ways of survival.
Kodi Smit-McPhee, with bow lips, hurting eyes, and long dark braids parted down the middle, looks like the sort of sensitive-poet hunter-gatherer you might encounter on the streets of Portland. “He leads with his heart, not his spear,” says his mother (Natassia Malthe), who’s against Keda joining the tribe on its yearly hunting trek. He goes along anyway, and when his father makes him slice into a wounded animal and finish the job of killing it, Keda resists going through this rite of bloody passage. He hasn’t found his inner slasher yet.
But after his encounter with the bison, he’s stranded and left for dead on a perilous slice of don’t-look-down ledge, thousands of feet above ground. How will he save himself? Endurance, and fate, point the way, and it’s only then that Keda begins his journey, an odyssey of survival that he absorbs one slaughtered beast and think-like-an-animal strategy at a time.
Keda wounds and rescues a wolf, whom he names Alpha, and who is embodied with enough spirit that I instinctively leapt to the credits of IMDb to see who plays him. Alpha becomes a refugee from his pack, and Keda’s willingness to stare down the animal’s snarling hunger and consume his own meal first — a lesson he might have absorbed from Cesar Millan — is a sign that he has what it takes to find his rightful place in the food chain. Smit-McPhee’s performance starts off (intentionally) soft and callow and grows in dynamism. Is he a riveting actor? Let’s just say that he holds the screen and gives those of us who would be lost in primitive times an authentic representative.
Keda’s slow-growing bond with the lone wolf Alpha is the film’s emotional core, and damned if it doesn’t tug at your heartstrings in a way that never feels fake. The two become tag-team hunters, with Alpha chasing down animals and Keda finishing them off with his spear, and there’s a poetic authenticity to that. Keda has trained his wolf buddy to train him in the killer instinct.
“Alpha” is captivating without being too surprising; you can always tell, more or less, where it’s headed. Yet the film is good enough to connect, as a late-summer sleeper, with an audience hungry to see an old-fashioned movie made with new-fashioned finesse. Working on his own, Albert Hughes proves to be a breathtaking choreographer of the natural world. When Keda is trapped under the ice (a scene we’ve seen a hundred times before), and Alpha runs over the surface tracking his lost master beneath, it feels standard and corny, but the wolf’s slow-motion leap into the air — he’ll do anything to save him — is touching in a transcendent way. And just when we think we’ve got the ending figured out (and are cooing over the sight of wolf babies), Hughes pulls off something dandy: a memorable final silhouette that suggests the bond Keda has made is more than the usual man-meets-animal movie connection — it may be a leap in human evolution. That’s how a bravura image-maker takes a conventional story and lifts it high.